Cerro de Pasco, Peru


Cerro de Pasco is one of the most polluted places on Earth. Source International has been performing studies and working with community members since 2008 to show the severe health damage and environmental consequences of the mine, and to protect the human rights of the community.

The most polluted city in the world

Cerro de Pasco may be the most polluted place on Earth, and it is the most polluted place that Source International has worked with.  Heavy metals from unregulated mines contaminate the water, soil, and air, and causes severe health problems in residents of the city.  In Cerro de Pasco, multiple human rights are violated every day: the right to water, to education, to health, to live in a clean environment, to property, and to information.  The simple human right to life is not respected. 

Source International is the only organization continuously working with Cerro de Pasco, and has been performing studies and working with the community since 2008. 

House destroyed by detonations from the mine
Water turned red from heavy metals

Studies expose human rights abuses

Since 2008, Source has been performing studies to illustrate the extent of the damage that has been done to the community of Cerro de Pasco and to the environment.

Heavy metal poisoning is a major issue in Cerro de Pasco. Heavy metals are neurotoxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic and toxic for the human body, and for all living beings. Heavy metals make people sick, and can kill them.

Source International analyzed the concentration of heavy metals in the hair of 82 children between 5 and 14 years old, the most vulnerable age for heavy metal exposure. All 82 kids presented heavy metals.  We can assume that all children between 5 and 15 years old in Cerro de Pasco are intoxicated with heavy metals.  Furthermore, 34% of Paraghsa children had low concentrations of essential elements like selenium, chromium and zinc, evidence of malnutrition, a symptom of absorbing toxic metals.

Flaviano taking a hair sample for analysis

All 82 kids presented heavy metals.  We can assume that all children between 5 and 15 years old in Cerro de Pasco are intoxicated with heavy metals.

1o0% had lead in their hair. 96% also had mangnese.

Source International also compared local rates of mortality, morbidity and mental health with national and regional levels. Within the Simon Bolivar district, Paraghsa is the community with the highest percentage of registered cases of diseases. It presents numerous cases of diseases of the digestive system, respiratory system, and numerous cases of trauma and poisoning. The local population reported high rates of diseases related to maternal reproductive health, including miscarriage.

There has also been an increase of mental disorders in Paraghsa’s population, particularly in relation to family violence (87% of the population) and depression (11%). According to the literature, high blood levels of mercury and lead are the basis of many psycho-physical health problems, associated with depression, anxiety, and increased cases of suicide.

In 2016, Source International took 16 samples of water from the river basins that were most affected, lakes that were turned into waste disposals, and tap water. They found that the pH of these lakes is around 2 (that’s 10,000 times the normal level), and we have recorded high levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead, chrome, iron, copper, manganese, and zinc. The iron concentration is 6,000 times over the national law limit.  The manganese is 2,200 times more than Peruvian law.

Dust carrying waste from the mine are carried by winds, expanding the area impacted by the pollution. Rivers are carrying pollutants to other bodies of water, creating huge stretches of water deadly to wildlife and unfit for human use. The San Juan river is polluted with high concentrations of heavy metals from the AUREX gold mine, endangering the surviving aquatic life.  The water should not be used for agriculture.  The Junin Lagoon received the contamination from the San Juan, compromising the conservation and protection of this natural wetland.  The Tingo and Huallaga rivers are contaminated with heavy metals.  The concentration of these metals is reduced further away from the mine, demonstrating that the mine is the source of it.  The mining waste water is polluted by aluminum, iron, arsenic, lead and zinc and flows directly into the rivers without being purified or treated.

Quiulacocha and Yanamate, two natural lagoons converted into mining waste pools. The red color is from the metals in the water.

Source International developed a human rights impact assessment in January of 2017 to evaluate children’s rights violations, and enable the local population gain and audience at the highest international institutions, including the UN.  They also investigated the state’s responsibility in failing to protect the health of its citizens. 

The study found that only 5% of children interviewed had access to running water, and 70% did not have drinking water in their schools. 33% stated that water comes out yellow and turbid, 70% affirmed that their family has to boil water before using it, and 79% do not have hot water at home.

Using data to take action

It has taken years of research and community action to make progress in Cerro de Pasco. In addition to performing studies, Source International helps the local communities act against human rights violations from the mines. They also train local community leaders to perform basic social and environmental monitoring systems. With local communities, Source International met with Peruvian government officials and informed them of the severe situation of the people in Cerro de Pasco, reminding them of the dramatic human rights violations on an international level.

Community members at a press conference in the Congress of the Republic

In June 2017, the Health Minister declared the territory of Cerro de Pasco in an Emergency State

After nine years of working in Cerro de Pasco, in February of 2017 Source International’s pressure finally attracted the attention of the Peruvian Ministry of Health, which sent a delegation to collect blood samples of children of the affected communities to test for lead. Lead is one of the most dangerous heavy metals.  Some health effects include anemia, nerve and brain damage, kidney damage, and infertility.  In children, lead poisoning also causes behavioral and learning difficulties.

Then in June 2017, the Health Minister declared the territory of Cerro de Pasco in an Emergency State, promoting urgent actions such as environmental restorative plans, a mining landfill closing plan, and healthcare and monitoring the levels of pollutants in children’s blood. 

But after four months, those urgent actions had not all been taken.

In November 2018, the government of Peru sent 47 doctors to Cerro de Pasco, where they spent 15 days monitoring the effects of heavy metals. The brigade included specialists in neurology, gynecology, lung specialists, and pediatric doctors.  They performed blood tests and general medical checks. The doctors focused their attention on the 36 communities that obtained the declaration of a  health emergency, and will focus on lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and other toxic metals. This was a huge win, as Source International had been asking for medical assistance for the people of Cerro de Pasco since 2008.

In May 2018, the Peruvian government finally allocated funds for remediation.  After several meetings with community members (which the company did not attend), the central government of Peru recognized the severe situation of Cerro de Pasco and decided to act. The Ministry of Health agreed to: provide medical attention to children impacted by the pollution, meet the mining company to coordinate relocating affected families, build a new hospital in Cerro de Pasco, and support opening an oncological clinic, declare the area a health emergency for 90 days, and guarantee families access to drinkable water.

Source International’s work in Cerro de Pasco continues, as we monitor the action being taken to help Cerro de Pasco, and keep pushing for solutions.

Source International has submitted a report with the Center of Climate Crisis Analysis (CCCA) to the Norwegian Pension Fund Global to inform its decision divest from the corporation that own the absolute majority of Volcan's voting shares.

Read the report to the Norwegian Government Pension Fund (2019)

Environmental Quality and Human Exposure to Heavy Metals (2019)

Report: 10 Years of Studies (2020)
Heavy metal contamination in Peru: implications on children’s health (2021)Assessment of human exposition to heavy metal pollution and Intelligent Quotient Test (2021)

Evaluación ambiental de los recursos hídricos y suelos en el área minera de Cerro de Pasco (2022)

Estudio Coeficiente Intelectual (2021)Estudio sobre salud humana - 2018-2021Estudios sobre calidad ambiental - 2009-2022